Understanding How Alcohol Abuse Impacts Families

July 24, 2023 Tara Treatment Center l Franklin, Indiana

Understanding How Alcohol Abuse Impacts Families l Tara Treatment Center

When one member of the family is addicted to a substance, it impacts the entire family unit. Families may believe they are to blame or feel hopeless while a family member is struggling with addiction. Alternatively, the family might feel like it’s their job to protect them from the consequences of their behavior. However, as we discussed in our Enabling Behaviors blog, this can sometimes do more harm than good.

Alcohol use disorder can be especially difficult for families since consuming alcohol is a socially-acceptable practice, unlike other forms of substance use. But when does it go too far, and when is it considered an addiction? How can families intervene healthily and provide support to their loved ones?

Once again, we brought in Tony Brenner to chat about the impact of alcohol addiction on the family unit. He is a Licensed Clinical Addiction Counselor and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, specializing in acupuncture services.

What Is Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Use Disorder?

As we mentioned, alcohol is commonly consumed as a social activity. In fact, 85 percent of people over the age of 18 reported they have consumed alcohol at some point in their life. The younger a person is when they start drinking, the more likely they are to develop Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

Alcohol becomes a problem when it is misused. According to a study conducted in 2019, almost 26 percent of people reported binge drinking in the past month. Alcohol consumption is something that often starts as a social activity, but can lead to high-intensity drinking and AUD. 

Alcohol has many negative effects on body functionality. It can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways, cause damage to the heart, liver, and pancreas, and weaken the immune system. Over-drinking can worsen these potential problems over time and cause serious health issues. 

Growing up in an Alcoholic Home Environment

When alcohol is present in the home, children experience various pressures within family dynamics. According to the book by Claudia Black, "It Will Never Happen to Me!", adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) adopt specific roles within the family structure, including:

  • The Hero Child is often the most responsible child in the household. They feel an obligation for making decisions that their alcoholic parent or parents can’t, and making peace between family members.
  • The Scapegoat is typically causes trouble for the family. This can come in the form of using substances, getting in trouble with the law, or bullying. Interestingly, experts believe kids partake in these destructive behaviors to draw attention away from the issues of other family members, such as a parent abusing alcohol.
  • The Lost Child tries everything possible to keep out of the spotlight. They don’t engage in arguments, and often don’t want anything to do with their family.
  • The Clown or Mascot is often the youngest child, and they take on the role of directing attention away from family issues through humor and jokes.

Depending on the role a child adopts, subsequent behavior can result in emotional, physical, and psychological damage. These roles are all coping mechanisms to avoid the pain an alcoholic parent is causing. Parents need to be aware of these roles to protect kids from following in their footsteps in the future.

Enabling Behaviors and Codependency

When a loved one progresses through the disease of addiction, the family often reaches out to help in a manner that actually has a reverse impact. Enabling behaviors and codependency can go hand-in-hand. Tony describes this progression, “Enabling behaviors usually begin in an effort by the family member to do damage control. They're just trying to help, and it's a completely natural trap to fall into. It's, ‘My loved one is in trouble. I'm going to try and help them.’” It’s a difficult trap to avoid as most family members have a natural instinct to help a struggling sibling, spouse, or child in any way possible.

Tony continues, “As the addiction gets worse, the family member is then faced with more and more consequences and problems they feel they have to clean up. Over time, if they keep doing that, they kind of take ownership of it. Now they make themselves responsible for fixing their loved one's problems, and that's the beginning of the disconnection that starts with enabling behaviors but ends up in a loss of boundaries. In my opinion, that defines codependency.”

Protecting a loved one starts to feel like a full-time job that’s simply impossible to maintain. Efforts of controlling others' actions or containing damage that’s been done become exhausting to the family members. The family not only feels responsible for controlling damages, but they also suffer the emotional burden of their family member being disconnected from the family unit. Tony empathizes, “It's a pretty devastating process to go through for family members.”

As a family, it’s important to recognize enabling behaviors, hold each other accountable, and to refrain from enabling the person who is addicted. If enabling behaviors continue, the person with the addiction is going to get worse. Tony adds, “Addiction is a progressive disease. If it is left to its own devices, it will just continue to spiral downward, and ultimately, I believe it's a fatal disease.”

Healing Starts with Behavioral Change

To overcome an alcohol addiction, both the family and the individual struggling with addiction need to make changes to their behavior. We encourage anyone struggling with alcohol misuse to seek treatment. Reaching out for help can be the most challenging part of recovery, but it is the most crucial to see positive changes. Change happens within the individual by discontinuing alcohol use, but also within the family dynamics. When alcohol is removed from the equation, you can start to heal familial relationships.

Families need to reevaluate their efforts to help and stop any enabling behaviors they may be exhibiting. Enabling behaviors are doing more harm than good, so families need to learn to accept they cannot control their loved one’s addiction. Letting go of the belief they can change their loved one's drinking behaviors is a big part of the healing process for family members. Chapter 8 of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book offers suggestions for convincing a loved one to seek treatment for their alcoholism or addiction and helping family members admit powerlessness over someone's addiction. 

We understand it can be challenging to disconnect yourself from a loved one who is abusing alcohol, which is why we are currently revamping our family program and making improvements to better support families. In the meantime, we recommend exploring Al-Anon, a 12-step-based support resource for family members of alcoholics. We encourage everyone impacted by addiction to seek support to improve relationships in the family unit.


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